Nancy Reagan, former first lady of the US, has reiterated her calls for federal legislation supporting embryonic stem cell (ES) research. Earlier this month, she published a personal letter that she had written to Senator Orrin Hatch, saying that she wants to see debate and a vote on bill HR 810 - known as the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act of 2005 - in the US Senate.
A vote on ES cells could see the Senate going against policy put in place by President George Bush. Bush, who opposes any research that would involve the destruction of human embryos, announced on 9 August 2001 that no federal funds would be available for researchers working on human ES cells created after that date. US scientists have since complained that this policy restricts their research and leaves only less effective ES cell lines for them to work with, as ES cells created before that date were created using mouse 'feeder' cells. But when a bill loosening the restrictions was passed by the House of Representatives last May, Bush pledged to veto any federal legislation that would relax the policy on ES cell research conducted by federally funded researchers. That bill - which would allow federal funds to be used for research on ES cells derived from embryos left over from fertility treatments and voluntarily donated by patients - was passed in the House by 238 votes to 194. That majority is not enough to allow a Presidential veto to be overridden - but Senator Arlen Specter said at the time that he was confident that the necessary two thirds majority is achievable in the Senate.
Senator Hatch, who is in favour of the bill, said that he wants Bill Frist, the Senate majority leader, to schedule the bill for debate in the Senate before 24 May - a full year after the bill passed through the House. Nancy Reagan, a known supporter of ES cell research, echoed this in her letter. 'For those waiting every day for scientific progress to help their loved ones, the wait for US Senate action has been very difficult and hard to comprehend', she wrote. Sean Tipton, president of the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research (CAMR) said in a press statement that the Senate should pass bill HR 810 'with no amendments and no alternatives'. Senator Arlen Specter, who sponsors the bill, said that he has had negotiations with Frist about bringing the bill to the floor of the Senate, and expects to 'reach a deal' soon.
Following Nancy Reagan's letter, CAMR released the results of a poll that show the majority of US citizens support ES cell research. According to the survey, 72 per cent of Americans favour ES cell research. Senators from both parties - as well as groups such as the American Diabetes Association - are now using these figures to show that there should be further debate on the legislation.
Meanwhile, individual states continue to establish their own stem cell regulations. The Senate of the US state of New Jersey last week voted in favour of a bill that will provide $250 million of state funds to establish stem cell research centres in Camden, New Brunswick and Newark. Senators voted 29-10 in favour of the provisions, sponsored by Democrat Senate President Richard Codey. The money will be gained by borrowing against the future revenue to be brought in by a new tax on cigarettes in the state. The bill now passes to the state Assembly, where it might be modified slightly, but is still expected to find favour.